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“UK Policy still way off the mark” to achieve net-zero emissions

Leading climate experts at Newcastle University respond to today's report calling on the UK to end its contribution to global warming within 30 years.

Ten years after the Climate Change Act became law, the Commission on Climate Change (CCC) has today issued a report calling on the UK to end its contribution to global warming within 30 years.

Setting an ambitious new target for the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, the target is in line with the UK’s commitment under the Paris Agreement - the pact which the UK and the rest of the world signed in 2015 to curb dramatically the polluting gases that cause climate change.

The CCC’s recommended targets, which cover all sectors of the UK, Scottish and Welsh economies, are achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements in people’s lives, and should be put into law as soon as possible, the Committee says.

Task ahead "is immense but not insurmountable"

Emphasising the vital importance of limiting further warming to as low a level as possible and the need for deep and rapid emissions reductions in order to do so, the CCC report found that “the foundations are in place throughout the UK” and the policies required to deliver key pillars of a net-zero economy are already active or in development.

But leading energy expert Professor Phil Taylor, Head of Engineering at Newcastle University, said he did not agree the foundations were in place to decarbonise the UK.

“Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is necessary, feasible and cost effective, but UK Policy is still way off the mark and the foundations are not in place to be able to meet this target,” says Professor Taylor, who is also Director of the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration.

“Even with all the evidence before us, we are still opening new coal mines, extending Heathrow airport, and flirting with fracking. We have unambitious building regulations, our drive to phase out petrol and diesel cars is too late, and we are withdrawing from carbon capture and storage demonstration.

“To have any hope of achieving the net-zero target, we must move on from our obsession about decarbonising electricity and deal with more difficult challenges of decarbonising heating and transport as soon as possible.

“We need to stop talking about low carbon solutions being too expensive and look instead at the cost of climate change if we don’t adopt them. And we need to do this without delay. Due to the lag in the climate system we must recognise that, even if we act now, we will still see significant climate change between now and 2050.

“As a country that became wealthy from exploiting fossil fuels at the expense of the global climate we have a duty to lead the way in decarbonising.”

Phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

Last month, Newcastle University signalled its commitment to climate change action by joining a number of organisations in the UK and all over the world to declare a climate emergency. The University has committed to further substantial progress in the de-carbonisation of its activities with the aim of achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2040.

The CCC report found that:

The foundations are in place throughout the UK, and the policies required to deliver key pillars of a net-zero economy are already active or in development. These include a supply of low-carbon electricity, efficient buildings and low-carbon heating, electric vehicles, developing carbon capture and storage technology and low-carbon hydrogen.

Policies will have to ramp up significantly for a ‘net-zero’ emissions target to be credible, given that most sectors of the economy will need to cut their emissions to zero by 2050. Government must set the direction and provide the urgency. The public will need to be engaged if the transition is to succeed. Serious plans are needed to clean up the UK’s heating systems, to deliver the infrastructure for carbon capture and storage technology and to drive transformational change in how we use our land.

The overall costs of the transition to a net-zero economy are manageable, but they must be fairly distributed. Rapid cost reductions in essential technologies such as offshore wind and batteries for electric vehicles mean that a net-zero greenhouse gas target can be met at an annual cost of up to 1-2% of GDP to 2050. However, the costs of the transition must be fair, and must be perceived as such by workers and energy bill payers. The Committee recommends that the Treasury reviews how the remaining costs of achieving net- zero can be managed in a fair way for consumers and businesses.

This is a crucial time in the global effort to tackle climate change. In the last ten years, pledges to reduce emissions by the countries of the world have reduced the forecast of global warming from above 4°C by the end of the century to around 3°C. Net-zero in the UK would lead the global effort to further limit the rise to 1.5°C.

Welcoming the report, Hayley Fowler, Professor of Climate Change Impacts at Newcastle University, said:

“The world has already warmed more than one degree since pre-industrial times, with human activity the major cause.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report that stated that, to keep below 1.5° warmer, we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by 50% in the next 12 years and to zero by 2050. For a 2° threshold, we still need to reduce our emissions by half within the next 30 years.

“This challenge is necessary as we are already seeing the impacts of climate change: more powerful and intense storm events, flooding, droughts and sea level rise. Science tells us that 2° of warming brings us to some dangerous tipping points or thresholds that will serious affect human society.

“The scale of change is immense but not insurmountable. I welcome the publication of the new report today which sets out ambitious targets for phasing out CO2 emissions by 2050 to end the UK’s contribution to global warming.

“The UK has been a leader in this area since the Climate Change Act was implemented over 10 years ago. Climate change is a serious concern for us and future generations and we must start to make easy and more difficult changes to our lifestyles to reduce emissions, with the lead from Government as set out in the new report.”

Benefits of a zero-carbon economy

Newcastle University’s Professor Richard Dawson, who was recently appointed to the CCC Adaptation Committee, adds:

“Limiting climate change to 2° will have significant benefits in terms of reducing the impact it will have.

“Analysis undertaken by the Adaptation Committee of the CCC for the 2017 Climate Change Risk Assessment shows the benefits to the UK economy and public wellbeing in terms of reduced infrastructure disruption.

“For example, a 2° rise would put 20-50% more roads and railways at high flood risk, whereas a 4° rise would increase this to 70-160% in the worst case scenario.”

There are multiple benefits of the transition to a zero-carbon economy, the Committee’s report shows. These include:

  • benefits to people’s health from better air quality
  • less noise thanks to quieter vehicles
  • more active travel thanks to increased rates of cycling and walking
  • healthier diets
  • increased recreational benefits from changes to land use

In addition, the UK could receive an industrial boost as it leads the way in low-carbon products and services, including electric vehicles, finance and engineering, carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen technologies, with potential benefits for exports, productivity and jobs.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, said: “We can all see that the climate is changing and it needs a serious response. The great news is that it is not only possible for the UK to play its full part – we explain how in our new report – but it can be done within the cost envelope that Parliament has already accepted. The Government should accept the recommendations and set about making the changes needed to deliver them without delay.”

published on: 2 May 2019